The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Issue 9 (Oct 2006)

Oswald, King and Saint: His Britain and Beyond   |   Issue Editor: Michelle Ziegler

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

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The State of Irish Hagiography

Dorothy Bray  
McGill University

© 2006 by Dorothy Bray. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2006 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

§1.  For many years, modern scholars tended to regard the early Irish Church as a strange and peculiar organization on the margins of Western Christianity, a church whose practices and doctrines often appeared to be at odds with orthodox beliefs. The same notion extended to Irish hagiography; the Lives of Irish saints were perceived as peculiar, over-the-top texts, full of credulous and bombastic miracle stories and rather bombastic saints, too—the product of a wild native imagination from clerics practicing their own form of Christianity. Over the past twenty-five years, this perception has changed considerably as our understanding of the early Irish Church and so-called 'Celtic Christianity' has developed and changed, with new research into the history, archaeology and language of early medieval Ireland. Studies in early Irish hagiography have flourished, with an increasing number of publications demonstrating a variety of approaches in a variety of disciplines. Indeed, the latter half of the twentieth century saw a burgeoning of interest in this body of texts, in both Latin and Irish, with the work of scholars such as Ludwig Bieler, Kathleen Hughes, and Felim Ó Briain, among others. The publication of W.W. Heist's Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae (Brussels, 1965) supplemented and completed the major collections edited by Charles Plummer (Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1910) and Bethada Náem nÉrenn, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1922)). With these and other editions of Irish saints' Lives, made from the late nineteenth century and into the mid-twentieth, students of Irish hagiography had readily available to them the main primary texts in modern editions. What was needed, however, was a suitable methodological approach—or a range of approaches from disciplines other than philology—which would remove Irish hagiography from the margins of hagiographical study in general. This brief survey outlines some of the foremost publications and developments in Irish hagiographical studies which have been made since 1980 and the directions now being taken by scholars working in the field.

§2.  In 1982, the first issue of Peritia appeared, most of which was devoted to hagiography; this publication indicated that the study of Irish hagiography had achieved a major momentum. In this volume, articles by Ian Wood, Richard Sharpe, Kim McCone, Pádraig Ó Riain, Jean-Michel Picard, Seán Connolly and Charles Doherty explored various aspects of Irish hagiography which represented many of the main developments of the time; these included the Lives of Irish saints on the continent and comparisons to early continental hagiography (Wood); the question of the dating of the earliest Lives of St Brigit and aspects of Brigidine tradition (Sharpe and McCone); the sources used by the hagiographers (Ó Riain); the intent of the hagiographers (Picard on Adomnán); the language of the texts (Connolly); and the use of saints' Lives as sources of history (Doherty on economic history).

§3.  The publication of Pádraig Ó Riain's Corpus Genealogiarum Sanctorum Hiberniae (Dublin, 1985) gave hagiographers a valuable reference tool for both the Lives and for hagiographical material in other texts. Ó Riain, like many scholars of hagiography before him, looks to the linguistic, historical and socio-cultural context of Irish hagiography. His work, especially on the Life of St Finnbarr, demonstrates the advances made in these areas with respect to early Irish hagiography; his publication of Beatha Bharra: Saint Finnbarr of Cork, the Complete Life (London: Irish Texts Society, 1994) includes not only the most recent editions and translations of the vernacular and Latin Lives, but also an examination of the sources and contexts of these Lives. Ó Riain's edition not only supersedes Plummer's, but allows scholars to examine the ecclesiastical and political importance of Finnbarr as a saint.

§4.  Ó Riain's colleague, Máire Herbert, has added to this approach the literary aspect of the Lives. Her book, Iona, Kells and Derry: The History and Hagiography of the Monastic Familia of Columba (Oxford, 1988) was another significant step forward in Irish hagiographical studies, bringing together, as it did, both the history and literature of the Columban foundations. Herbert described hagiography as an attempt to depict its subject as an exemplar of holiness (1) in the context of the time and place the text was composed. She argued that each Life bears 'an encoded message about the milieu in which it was compiled and received' (2) and called for an inter-disciplinary approach which combines the historical, linguistic, and literary aspects of the texts.

§5.  In 1991, Richard Sharpe published Medieval Irish Saints' Lives: An Introduction to Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae (Oxford, 1991) which offered for the first time a comprehensive examination of the collections of early Irish saints' Lives, the manuscript traditions and the continually vexed question of the dating of the texts. For Sharpe, it was imperative to establish a firm historical foundation for the Lives. As he put it, '[t]hese texts cannot be put to any use until we are able to assign some kind of date, unless we are to take the evasive and in some cases obviously mistaken approach of treating the collections merely as literary monuments of the age of their latest compilers' (7). The Lives, for him, are not only 'a significant part of Irish literature,' they 'are also important as historical evidence' (7). But, he cautioned, 'one must first establish how and to what end this evidence may be used' (8) by placing their composition in context, in order to trace the development of hagiographical composition. Sharpe's research and analyses uncovered another group of nine or ten Lives that could be placed between the seventh and ninth centuries. According to Sharpe, the value of these Lives, to the historian, lies in the information they may offer on the development of the Irish Church and the social and economic history of early medieval Ireland in their narratives, as advances in other areas, such as early Irish law, are made (387). Sharpe also suggested that, although Plummer may have been misguided in his attempt to find pagan elements in the Lives, he nevertheless recognized that the Lives of the saints may yield up insights as to the spiritual life of these hagiographers and their intended audience, an aspect still to be fully explored (388).

§6.  Studies in Irish hagiography, which had long given preference to Patrician and Columban texts, continued to do so with the publication of a collection of essays to commemorate the 1500th anniversary of the death of St Patrick, Saint Patrick, AD 493-1993, ed. David Dumville, et. al. (Suffolk, 1993)—if one accepts the dating of 493. The volume explores such issues, as well as the problems of the 'historical' St Patrick and the rise of Armagh to supremacy in the early Irish Church. In a similar vein, a collection of essays on St Columba appeared in 1997, edited by Cormac Bourke, Studies in the Cult of Saint Columba (Dublin, 1997).

§7.  Also in 1997, Pádraig Ó Riain and Máire Herbert, along with John Carey, organized an international conference on hagiography at University College Cork, to commemorate the 1400th anniversary of the death of St Columba. The conference brought together scholars of all disciplines and generated discussions not only of the Columban tradition and those of other Irish saints, but also of the approaches to the discipline (linguistic, historical, literary, and folkloristic) as well as its history from its beginnings in the seventeenth century. The papers, eventually published in Studies in Irish Hagiography: Saints and Scholars, edited by John Carey, Máire Herbert and Pádraig Ó Riain (Dublin, 2001), represented a wide cross-section of current scholarship in the field. Another conference, on Celtic hagiography, was held in 2001 at the University of Wales, Lampeter; the papers presented there indicate to a greater extent the new developments in Irish hagiographical studies. Several papers from the conference and some commissioned for publication appear in Celtic Hagiography and Saints' Cults, ed. Jane Cartwright (Cardiff, 2003). Here, the literary aspect of hagiography takes its place alongside history, geography and linguistics. The questions posed by hagiographers no longer hang on the historicity of the saint, but on the perception of the subject and the manner of his or her presentation. The spiritual import of the Lives is beginning to get some treatment, as evidenced in the articles by Jonathan Wooding ('Fasting, Flesh and the Body in St Brendan's Dossier'), Thomas O'Loughlin ('Reading Muirchu's Tara-Event within its Background as a Biblical "Trial of Divinities"') and Thomas Charles-Edwards ('The Northern Lectionary: a Source for the Codex Salmanticnesis') which examine the use of the liturgy and scriptural associations in the texts (O'Loughlin in particular, in recent years, has examined the liturgical and theological aspects of Irish hagiography).

§8.  The latest, major study in Irish hagiography comes from Nathalie Stalmans, whose doctoral thesis has been published as Saints d'Irlande: Analyse critique des sources hagiographiques (VIIe-IXe siècles) (Rennes, 2003). Stalmans takes up where Sharpe left off, so to speak, and examines both the historical context of seventh- to ninth-century Lives and their composition. Stalmans methodically examines the Lives of the seventh and eighth centuries according to three main functions for a saint's vita: the promotion of an ecclesiastical centre, the promotion of a dynasty, and the teaching of the faithful. Her analysis uncovers the changes and literary developments in hagiographical writing over this period; for example, miracles in the Lives of the eighth and ninth centuries no longer have the allegorical meanings which could be construed in Lives of the seventh century; the saints and their cults become more localized than in the seventh century (with the three major 'national' saints, Patrick, Brigit and Columba); the cult of relics gains greater importance, as do the material interests of the Irish Church. Stalmans looks to casting light on some of the areas that Sharpe outlined for further research, not only the context of individual Lives, but the spiritual importance of the saints and the way in which the Irish churches and hagiographers perceived their saints and their roles.

§9.  Stalmans also singles out a Life of St Brigit, the Vita Prima (so-called for being the first of the Brigidine Lives published in the Bollandists' Acta Sanctorum). The dating of this text continues to attract debate—whether it is of the seventh century or not, whether it predates Cogitosus's Vita Sanctae Brigidae. Stalmans's analysis puts it in the eighth century, but no doubt the controversy will continue. Nevertheless, this is just part of a thriving body of scholarship on St Brigit alone, and on women saints in Ireland in general. Despite the lack of a large corpus of material (only four female saints have extant Lives—Brigit, Íte, Samthann and Mo-ninne; five, if we count the late Life of St Lasair), significant progress has been made in our understanding of the history of women in the early Irish Church and the composition of hagiographical works about them, through the work of historians such as Lisa Bitel1 and Elva Johnston,2 for example.

§10.  The idea that women in early Ireland possessed considerable rights, liberties and powers (which the Church took away) gained popularity in the late twentieth century and permeated the study of Irish women in religion, perpetuating the search for 'pagan' roots to Irish Christianity. The more measured studies assessed the hagiographical texts in terms of the literary images presented and the possible perceptions to their audiences (MacCurtain 1980; Bray 1987). The less measured studies tended to use hagiographical material in the same way as historical documents, often indiscriminately in terms of dating, in order to make their point 3 The first full-length study of women in the early Irish Church appeared in 2002, Christina Harrington's Women in a Celtic Church: Ireland 450-1150 (Oxford, 2002). Harrington made considerable use of hagiographical material to reconstruct an historical picture, albeit from a very particular point of view. One of her main arguments asserts that the early Irish Church was more 'woman-friendly' than the continental churches, but the evidence is such that the argument can go either way. Despite this, her methodology in approaching hagiographical texts indicates a grounding in the historical approach advocated by Sharpe et al.

§11.  St Brigit has attracted the most attention, largely owing to the fact that more material exists for her than for any other female saint; she has been seen variously as a model of Irish womanhood, a goddess in disguise, and a feminist icon. Catherine McKenna's recent article, 'Apotheosis and Evanescence: The Fortunes of Saint Brigit in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries' (2001), charts these changing views of Brigit to the present. Her pagan associations have received particular attention but there is a trend now to look beyond the bald assumption that she is merely a euhemerized deity, and toward her construction as a Christian saint in her extant Lives and how native (and pagan) ideas may or may not have influenced their composition (as in the work of Johnston and McKenna4). My own work on Brigit has fallen into a more literary mode,5 in an attempt to analyze the image of virtue created by her hagiographers, and I have just completed a study of the composition of Cogitosus's Vita Sanctae Brigidae, which explores his debt to continental hagiography and scripture. My approach, a mixture of literary analysis and folklore, has begun to consider 'hagiographical motifs' in the narratives of miracles and marvelous deeds—rather than seeking 'pagan' or 'folk' motifs6—and what possible meaning, spiritual or otherwise, such motifs might have had to their audience. The genesis of this was my first attempt to catalogue and categorize the folk motifs in the major collections edited by Plummer,9 an ongoing and now expanded project which frequently overwhelms me by its sheer size and scope (hence, progress is slow and publication is a dim and distant goal on an ever-shifting horizon; in other words, don't hold your breath!).

§12.  Máire Herbert previously surveyed the state of Irish hagiography up to 1996, charting the progress of scholarship and the work which still needed to be done. Much of what she described then is still true today. There is, for example, no modern critical edition of the early Latin Lives of St Brigit (although Seán Connolly and Jean-Michel Picard are said to be working on one). Most of the Irish Lives still exist in editions which are nearly a hundred years old, or more (like that of Whitley Stokes's Lives of the Saints from the Book of Lismore (Oxford, 1890), a work which cries out for a new edition), and most of the Latin Lives remain untranslated. The exceptions are the early Lives of SS Patrick, Columba and Brigit. Liam de Paor provides translations of several documents and Lives associated with St Patrick in Saint Patrick's World: The Christian Culture of Ireland's Apostolic Age (Dublin, 1993). Richard Sharpe prepared a new translation of the seventh-century Life of Saint Columba by Adomnán of Iona for Penguin Books (1995), thereby bringing the work into the mainstream of Penguin Classics. Dorothy Africa, who has worked for several years on Irish saints' genealogies and female Irish saints in particular, has produced a translation of the Life of St Samthann for Medieval Hagiography: An Anthology, edited by Thomas Head (New York, 2000: 'The Life of the Holy Virgin Samthann,' 97-110). These translations have helped to make Irish hagiographical texts better known; set alongside the Lives of other European saints, they demonstrate that Irish hagiography is not a genre unto itself and that the Irish saints, although not without certain characteristics peculiar to them, are yet constructed as saints in the European model.

§13.  Just as studies of the Irish Church have moved toward a greater understanding of its relation to, and place within, the western Church, so has the study of Irish hagiography moved toward consideration of the Lives in the context of European hagiography. Instead of seeking differences, scholars now tend to look as well for similarities in a common Christian culture. Another major study of seventh-century Irish saints' Lives is being prepared by Clare Stancliffe,8 whose previous book, St Martin and His Hagiographer (Oxford, 1983) has been a valuable source for the study of the influence of Sulpicius Severus on the composition of Irish hagiography. Lisa Bitel is turning her attention to continental female saints' Lives in order to compare them to the seventh-century Lives of St Brigit. Peritia continues to make a point of publishing work on Irish hagiography, as well as articles dealing with the hagiographical aspects of folklore, liturgy, archaeology and literature. Although not every scholar currently working in the field can be mentioned here, this survey points towards a thriving future for the state of Irish hagiography, as the Irish saints and their Lives take their rightful place among their European counterparts.


1. See, for example, Bitel, Lisa. 2002. Body of a saint, story of a goddess: Origins of Brigidine tradition. Textual Practice 16.2:209-228; 2004. Ekphrasis at Kildare: The imaginative architecture of a seventh-century hagiographer. Speculum 79:605-627; 1996. Land of women: Tales of sex and gender from early Ireland Ithaca: Cornell University Press; 1986. Women's monastic enclosures in early Ireland: A study of female spirituality and male monastic mentalities. Journal of Medieval History 12.1:15-36.  [Back]

2. See, for example, Johnston, Elva. 2002. The 'Pagan' and 'Christian' identities of the Irish female saint. In Celts and Christians: New approaches to the religious traditions of Britain and Ireland, edited by Mark Atherton. Cardiff: University of Wales Press; 2001. Powerful women or patriarchal weapons? Two medieval Irish saints. Peritia 15:302-310; 1995. Transforming women in Irish hagiography. Peritia 9:197-220.  [Back]

3. The prime example of this is Condren, Mary. 1989. The serpent and the goddess: Women, religion and power in Celtic Ireland. San Francisco: New Island; the work of Peter Beresford Ellis (1995. Celtic women. London: W.B. Eerdmans Pub) is a close second.  [Back]

4. See also McKenna, Catherine. 2002. Between two worlds: Saint Brigit and pre-Christian religion in the Vita Prima. In Identifying the 'Celtic' (CSANA Yearbook 2), edited by Joseph Falaky Nagy. Dublin: Four Courts Press. New research continues to emerge from new scholars, as indicated by Thomas Torma's recent doctoral dissertation, 2001. This woman alone: Approaches to the earliest Vitae of Brigit of Kildare. Ph. D. diss, University of Edinburgh, which examines the figure of Brigit in the context of the seventh- and eighth-century Irish Church and society.  [Back]

5. See Bray, Dorothy. 1992. Saint Brigit and the fire from heaven. Études Celtiques 29:105-113, as well as 1985-86. Motival derivations in the Life of St Samthann. Studia Celtica 20-21:78-86 and 1992. Secunda Brigida: Saint Ita of Killeedy and Brigidine tradition. In Celtic languages and Celtic peoples, edited by Cyril S. Byrne et al. Halifax, N.S.: D'Arcy McGee Chair of Irish Studies, Saint Mary's University, which take Brigit's early Lives as possible models for these later saints' Lives.  [Back]

6. An earlier article arose from my initial research into folk motifs and hagiography; Bray, Dorothy. 1987. The image of Saint Brigit in the early Irish church. Études Celtiques 24:209-215, tried to link the perception of Brigit the saint to certain aspects of native Irish culture and belief.  [Back]

7. 1992. A list of motifs in the Lives of the early Irish saints. Helsinki: University of Wales Press. See also [author?]. 2003. Miracles and wonders in the composition of the Lives of the early Irish saints. In Celtic hagiography and saints' cults, edited by Jane Cartwright. Cardiff: [Publisher].  [Back]

8. An indication of this can be seen in her article, 1992. The miracle stories in seventh-century Irish Saints' Lives. In The seventh century: Change and continuity, edited by Jacques Fontaine and J.N. Hillgarth. London: Warburg Institute, University of London.  [Back]

Works Cited

Bray, Dorothy Ann. The image of St Brigit in the early Irish Church. Études Celtiques 24:209-215. [Back]

Herbert, Máire. 1996. Hagiography. In Progress in medieval Irish studies, edited by Kim McCone and Katherine Simms. Maynooth: [Publisher].  [Back]

MacCurtain, Margaret. 1980. Towards an appraisal of the religious image of women. The Crane Bag 4.1:26-30; [Back]

McKenna, Catherine. 2001. Apotheosis and evanescence: The fortunes of Saint Brigit in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In The Individual in Celtic Literatures (CSANA Yearbook 1), edited by Joseph Falaky Nagy. Dublin: [Publisher]  [Back]